Sotomayor hearings an exercise in divisive politics

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah., questions Sotomayor at hearing (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Many have been paying close attention to this week’s congressional hearings which will determine whether or not Judge Sonia Sotomayor will become the first Latina Supreme Court justice.

There are already a few indisputable facts in Sotomayor’s favor. Both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that Sotomayor has the most federal judicial experience of any Supreme Court nominee in the past one hundred years. Secondly, even though Republican senators have come down hard on Sotomayor this week, she has already, in fact, had bi-partisan support throughout much of her career having been previously nominated by George Bush to the U.S. District Court.

Furthermore, Sotomayor’s judging record also makes it clear that she is far from an activist judge: in a number of race-related cases, such as one in which she upheld a white police officer’s right to make racist remarks, Sotomayor has not judged along the lines that one might assume she would. She has judged much more in line with the majority than not. So, as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham noted, “unless [Sotomayor has] a complete meltdown, [she’s] going to get confirmed”

Unable to pick holes in Sotomayor’s merit and qualifications, the congressional hearings have become a place for Republican senators to practice partisan politicking. The line of questioning, particularly by Senator Lindsey Graham and ranking Republican Jeff Sessions, has taken on a surprisingly harsh accusatory and condescending tone, more akin at times to a prosecution than a hearing.

The focus has often centered around Sotomayor’s speeches, particularly the oft-quoted and contextually inaccurate ‘wise Latina’ comment, and has even ventured into the personal, with Senator Sessions asking her if she is a ‘bully’ who has a ‘temperament problem’.

Republican senators have clearly been disatisfied with, and even dismissive of, Sotomayor’s explanation that she was simply trying to inspire other young Latinas when she spoke of being a ‘wise Latina’. Despite an admission that her comment ‘fell flat’, Republican senators continue to paint her as a judge unable to step outside of her race when it comes to the law. And it is that that is the most curious, and troubling, aspect of these congressional hearings so far.

These senators seem not only to believe that Sotomayor’s race necessarily shapes her perspective but seem unable or unwilling to admit that their own race shapes their’s. In fact, the continual implication is that race is something that only people of color like Sotomayor have; that white people do not, in fact, have a racial identity which impacts their life and affects the lens through which they perceive society. Apparently, white men are the harbinger of neutrality, objectivity, impartiality and fairness. They apparently have the default position from which to determine others’ biases.

However, while the idea of neutrality is nice on the ear, in reality it’s nothing but delusion. The fact is that everybody has an identity and that identity shapes all of us. White men are as much subject to bias from their own experience as white men, as a female Latina is from her experience as a female Latina. The irony is that the failure to recognize this is the very privilege of being white and male.

Discrimination, prejudice and bias – particularly against people of color – within the legal system is nothing new. So the idea that these white men are so concerned about a Latina judge being prejudiced – as if no prejudice already exists – is somewhat laughable. Perhaps if such men were able to see how their own racial identity shapes them and how they view others, there would be a great deal more awareness and a great deal less prejudice today.

Sotomayor has thus far been calm and collected and has had some gems of wisdom of her own. “I think the system is strengthened when judges don’t assume they’re impartial,” she says. “We are not robots”. Indeed. Let’s just hope these Republican senators catch on to that quickly.